A state or condition free from both death and decay. The Bible affirms that only God bynature has immortality ( 1 Tim 6:16 ; cf. Deut 32:40 ; Rom 1:23 ; 1 Tim 1:17 ). Italso implies that it is a potential state for human beings. Humankind failed to obtainthis state because of sin ( Gen 2:17 ; 3:19 ), but it isgiven by God to righteous persons ( Rom 2:6-7 ; 1 Cor 15:23-56 ).
The concept of immortality is present in the Old Testament, but there is no Hebrew wordfor it. In Proverbs 12:28 (NASB)"In the way of righteousness is life, and inits pathway there is no death"immortality (as the word is translated in theNIV) is, literally, the Hebrew phrase "no-death" (al-mawet)."Sheol" occurs sixty-five times throughout the Old Testament; it is an obscure,shadowy, gloomy place of existence, but also of forgetfulness. The hope is for deliverancefrom it after death ( Psalm49:15 ; 86:13 ).Job 10:20-22 anticipates only a sheol-like state after death, but 19:25-26 seems to lookfor something more. Isaiah's prophecy ends with a vague expectation of continued existencefor good and evil ( 66:22-24 ; cf. 26:16 ; Psalm 23:6 ); such ismade clear in Daniel 12:2.
The New Testament writers present the idea of immortality with (1) thenouns aphtharsia [ajfqarsiva],"not-perishable, " "incorruptibility, " or "immortality" ( Rom 2:7 ; 1 Corinthians 15:42 1 Corinthians 15:50 1 Corinthians 15:53-54 ; Eph6:24 ; 2 Tim 1:10 );and athanasia [ajqanasiva],"no-death, " "deathlessness, " or "immortality" ( 1 Cor 15:53-54 ; 1 Tim 6:16 ); (2)the adjective aphthartos [a [fqarto"], "imperishable, " "incorruptible," "immortal" ( Rom 1:23 ; 1 Cor 9:25 ; 15:52 ; 1 Tim 1:17 ; 1 Peter 1:4 ); and(3) the phrase "eternal life" (lit., "life of the ages, " zoenaionion). All these terms, except the latter (which Paul uses elsewhere), occur in 1Corinthians 15. "Eternal life" is a favorite expression of John ( John 3:15 John 3:16 John 3:36 ; 10:28 ; 17:2-3 ; 1 John 1:2 ; 2:25 ; 1 John 5:11 1 John 5:13 1 John 5:20 )and is frequently used by Paul (e.g., Rom 2:7 ; 5:21 ; 6:22-23 ; Gal 6:8 ; 1 Tim 1:16 ; 6:12 ; 2 Tim 2:10 ; Titus 1:2 ; 3:7 ). Passages suchas 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 refer or allude to the concept with metaphors. Immortality is acorollary to references to existence after death or to the resurrection in general.
Jesus assumes a continuing existence after death throughout his teachings. Certainlythe future aspects of the kingdom of God imply as much. He speaks of it directly in theparable of the rich man and Lazarus ( Luke 16:19-31 )and in the judgment scene of Matthew 25:31-46. To make "everlasting life"available is at the heart of Jesus' mission: "I have come that they may have life,and have it to the full" ( 10:10 ; cf. 5:40 ; 20:31 ). John 14:1-3assumes not only a continuing existence but also that for believers it will be with Jesus.
Peter says Christians have been given "new birth into a living hope through theresurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish,spoil or fade" ( 1 Peter 1:3-4 ).Later he states that this new birth is "not of perishable seed, but ofimperishable" (v. 23). The judgment scenes of Revelation 20-22 display eternal lifeof bliss for believers and punishment for the rest.
It is Paul who gives the clearest explanations of immortality. It is a gift madeavailable through the work of Christ ( Rom 2:7 ; 2 Tim 1:10 ), thelasting reward of the believer in contrast to the perishable wreath won by the athlete ( 1 Cor 9:25 ). At thesame time Paul asserts that the wicked face continuing, conscious alienation from God andpositive punishment ( 2Thess 1:9 ).
First Corinthians 15:35-57 contains the most lengthy discussion of immortality, but isactually only a corollary to Paul's affirmation of the resurrection. Here Paul clearlysets forth the fact of an incorruptible, permanent existence in contrast to our presentcondition. However, as the planted seed and the stalk that grows from it are both the sameyet different, so the future spiritual-immortal body will be both a continuation of anddifferent from the physical-mortal one.
Second Corinthians 5:1-10 affirms that the future, eternal, heavenly "house"is the present possession of believers ("we have, " v. 1). In spite of thepresent undesirable state, a mortal one in which "we groan" (vv. 2-4), theSpirit is "the guarantee" of the better one that awaits the believer (v. 5).Furthermore, Paul maintains that to be "away from the body" is to be "athome with the Lord" (v. 8). Similarly, Philippians 1:20-21 asserts that through thebeliever's union with Christ the future (immortal) life is a present possession.Philippians 2:10-21 has the same expectation of a changed or transformed body, byimplication an immortal one, as the Corinthians correspondence. Indeed, Paul assumes thatimmortality as a permanent, incorruptible, never-ending state and life not only await theChristian after death but is actually the present possession of the believer.
Differing views about nature of life beyond the grave are tied to differing views aboutthe nature of humankind. Traditional Christianity has held a dualist or tripartite view ofpersons (soul-spirit and body or soul, spirit, and body) and that between death and theresurrection there is some sort of an intermediate state in which the immaterial part ofthe individual continues a conscious existence apart from the physical. Some who emphasizea holistic view of persons assume that at death there is an immediate resurrection of anew spiritual body and union with God. Others with a similar anthropology propound a formof re-creationism, a temporary extinction at death that ends at the resurrection in a newcreation. An associated issue, "soul sleep" (psychopannychy), could be acorollary to either the traditional view or that of re-creation.
In summary, the Bible clearly teaches a continuing existence after death for all. Forbelievers this will be deathless and imperishable, marked by that glory and honor thatcome from union with Christ. Because immortality is now obscured in corruptible bodies,changes will occur. Believers will have appropriately different bodies; their immortalitywill be evident. This fact, along with the bodily resurrection, Paul sees as assuredbecause of the Spirit's guarantee, the defeat of death, and the ultimate victory of Godthrough Jesus Christ ( 1 Cor 15:54-57 ).
J. Julius Scott, Jr.
Bibliography. F. F. Bruce, Scottish Journal of Theology24 (1971): 457-72;J. W. Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting; O. Cullmann, HDSB (1955):7-36; G. R. Habermas and J. B. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death; M.J. Harris, Raised Immortal: Resurrection and Immortality in the New Testament;idem, From Grave to Glory; G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament; A.Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet; G. W. E. Nickelsburg, Jr., Resurrection,Immortality and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[J] indicates this entry was also found in Jack Van Impe's Prophecy Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Immortality'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".